The Kettlebell Side Bend is a great exercise to strengthen the back. You can do the kettlebell side bend slow and focus on ROM and strength or you can perform the side bend a bit faster for a cardio workout. When working faster and longer, one should keep in mind that this—like any exercise—is not an exercise one should just start doing fast and in high volume without a proper progression.
The reason the kettlebell side bend has been getting a bad name is that they’ve been programmed incorrectly for people that normally do not engage in lateral flexion of the spine. Moving through all motions possible with the spine is something anyone should do and train. However, in general, the population does not train movement of the spine and in most cases is told to keep their spine straight and rigid all the time.
The spine is designed to rotate, bend sideways, forward, and backward, or even bend sideways while rotating. The spine has 33 vertebrae and each vertebra has two facet joints. Facet joints work like hinges and link one vertebra to the next. Like with any joint in our body, if we don’t use it we lose it. Not moving the spine ever or irregularly through all movements means that the muscles responsible for those movements will become weak, and some will become tight, etc. This all contributes to the spine not being conditioned for any of the movements I covered, hence, if one joins a fitness class and all of a sudden starts doing 8 reps of the kettlebell side bend with a 24kg for AMRAP, then that’s a recipe for disaster.
I’ve personally seen it done, which isn’t even the worst thing, after all, a group class is not a private training session and participants should educate themselves, but a good trainer/coach should provide some warning in certain areas which are common to produce injury due to generally being unconditioned.
- Is the Kettlebell Side Bend dangerous?
- What are the prime movers of the Kettlebell Side Bend?
- What are the benefits of the Kettlebell Side Bend?
- Is the Kettlebell Side Bend functional?
- How to perform the Kettlebell Side Bend correctly?
Is the Kettlebell Side Bend dangerous?
So, is the kettlebell side bend dangerous, should this exercise never be done? The answer is, no, the exercise itself is not dangerous and is without a doubt an exercise everyone, absolutely everyone (without injury), should be doing.
What are the prime movers of the Kettlebell Side Bend?
- Illiocostalis cervicis
- Illiocostalis thoracis
- Illiocostalis lumborum
- Internal oblique
- External oblique
- Logissimus capitus
- Logissimus thoracis
- Quadratus lumborum
- Intertransversarii anterioris cervicis
- Intertransversarii posteriores cervicis
- Intertransversarii medialis lumborum
- Intertransversarii lateralis lumborum
- Spinalis cervicis
- Spinalis thoracis
What are the benefits of the Kettlebell Side Bend?
- More mobile spine
- Stronger spine
- Less injury prone
- Move more efficiently
A stronger core functions better to stabilize the spine. A stable spine keeps you free from injury longer. A spine with good ROM will make you feel and function much better.
Is the Kettlebell Side Bend functional?
The kettlebell side bent creates a stronger and more mobile spine, but is the movement something one would do in everyday life? No, not if you’re not training the movement, then people would avoid the movement because their spine is rigid. If you have to reach for something beside you placed low then you would first step to the side and use your legs/hips to reach, which is all extra work. I’m not saying that’s a wrong thing, I am saying that if someone has a mobile spine they would reach for that object quicker without additional unnecessary movement. I am also saying that in cases where the side bend would be required when for example in a tight space, the movement could lead to injury due to being unconditioned, i.e. the person did not train this aspect.
To those who say it’s not functional because they or someone else does not regularly perform the movement, I would say they’re right, the movement is not made regularly or at all, exactly for the reason of not training in it and thus the spine being rigid. In the video, at 35 seconds in I show what it looks like to reach for the same location with a flexible or a rigid spine. At 43 seconds in, I show how one would have to step to the side and then reach up. At 47 seconds in, I show how you could bend the spine to reach for something lower, and at 51 seconds in, I show how you would have to step to the side and bend over to reach for the same location. Of course, whether you use one over the other would depend on the space you have available, the weight of the object to carry, etc.
How to perform the Kettlebell Side Bend correctly?
- Your feet should be placed directly under your hips or more narrow to make stabilization more challenging
- There should be no movement in the legs or hips
- The legs should remain vertical
- The weight should hang on one side with a relaxed arm
- The trapezius should be engaged
- All the movement should be in the thoracic spine not the cervical
- The movement should be lateral (spine lateral flexion)
- Only go as far as you can comfortably go without forcing it
- Bring the shoulder up on the opposite side for more ROM
A great way to think about this is to let the hanging weight come as low as possible toward or past the knee while pulling the shoulder on the opposite up as high as possible. You can come back into a neutral standing position or you can go in the opposite direction, pulling the weight up as high as possible. In the video, I demonstrate going low and pulling up high.
You can do this kettlebell exercise with one or two weights, with one weight you will work the prime movers more as two weights would provide leverage.
How far should you bend?
You should bend as far as you can safely go without straining or causing injury. This means, there is no set range to achieve, only the maximum safe ROM you can achieve at any given moment in time.
Some of the common mistakes I commonly see. The cervical (neck) is bent excessively to give the impression that a lot of ROM is achieved, it’s what I call fake range, as it feels to the person like he/she is bending very far but actually isn’t in the place that the movement is supposed to take place. The other mistake I see is the elbow bending, the weight being pulled up to again give the impression that the range is increased, but it’s not.
Personally I would not program this exercise for cardio or speed reps but rather for strength and ROM, but with that said, there could always be an exception to that rule. For people who are interested in becoming the best they can be at kettlebell training and safely learn from some of the best coaches/trainers in the business, come and join our private group where people get coaching, get to ask questions, progress, access our 150+ large kettlebell library, and receive a new kettlebell workout each week to complete at home in your own time. For those that prefer a book, check out the Kettlebell Exercise Encyclopedia which has all kettlebell exercises broken down for you, also available on Amazon. And last but not least, become kettlebell certified online.